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WHITE SANDS NATIONAL PARK

Some things never change

Fossilized human trackway shows children always jumped in puddles

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When White Sands’ Resource Program Manager David Bustos sees 10,000-year-old footprints crossing the sands at the edge of Lake Lucero, he sees people being people.

There are prints, extending almost a mile, of a child and an adult, possibly the child’s mother, traveling together. Sometimes the little prints disappear, indicating the bigger person is carrying the smaller person. Sometimes the bigger person is heavier on one side and at other times heavier on the other, indicating s/he shifted the child from one side to the other.

“It looks like a giant ground sloth walks through a puddle also, [and] it looks like [the people] are jumping in the mud,” Bustos said. “It looks like many of the activities they did back then, they are doing today ­– walking quickly, keeping [the children] up out of the mud.

“The neat part of the story is people are always people,” Bustos said. “It’s always been that way – connecting us back through time. It doesn’t matter where you come from and where you live, you can see interactions through time. We think White Sands is new, but we realize it’s been visited for thousands of years.”

Bustos said they noticed the prints were discovered in 2018.

“We call them ghost prints,” he said. “We only see them when the moisture is just right. Once we recognized what they were, we worked with a team of experts.”

A new paper published in Quaternary Science Reviews documents the trail of prints and hails it as the world's longest fossilized human trackway. An international team of scientists, including Bustos and other staff from the National Park Service, has produced evidence through footprints showing how animals may have been hunted – but White Sands still has many stories to tell. 

He said the fossilized prints include evidence of children playing in puddles that formed in giant sloth tracks, friends jumping between mammoth tracks and the steady stalking of humans in search of large prey.

Designated a megatracksite in 2014, White Sands contains the largest collection of ice age (Pleistocene epoch) fossilized footprints in the world. Mammoth, giant ground sloth, dire wolf and American lion tracks have been found at White Sands.

“That’s how it goes out there,” Bustos said. “Who expects there to be anything out there? But there is so much more than you expect. There are many stories to be told.”

Bustos said most of the originally discovered mammoth and camel prints have disappeared, destroyed by the elements. He expects the more newly found prints, like those of the people walking along the lake, to also disappear within a few years.

“I think of it like a library on fire,” he said. “We can try to record the stories as quickly as we can. We can make 3D images we can show.”

Along the eastern shoreline of the lake, the track bearing layer might be four or five inches deep, Bustos said. When the elements move the sand and dirt around, the tracks become visible, but once that layer is gone, the tracks will have eroded away. There are acres and acres of area and there is no way to know what stories have been lost, he said.

“We have even seen some body prints of sleeping baby mammoth,” he said. “What makes the fossilized footprints at White Sands so unique is the incredible interactions we see between humans and other ice-age animals.”

"I am so pleased to highlight this wonderful story that crosses millennia. Seeing a child's footprints thousands of years old reminds us why taking care of these special places is so important," said White Sands National Park Superintendent Marie Sauter. 

White Sands National Park is America's newest national park, established on Dec. 20, 2019. Known for the world's largest gypsum sands dunes, White Sands and other national parks are among the world's most preserved natural laboratories. 

Visit https://www.nps.gov/whsa/learn/nature/fossilized-footprints.htm.

Kelly Carroll, chief of interpretation at White Sands National Park, contributed to this story .